Kevin Spacey is the Spock of serious actors. He's dependable, methodical, passionless, a huge fan of saying everything by saying nothing at all. He tends to gravitate towards characters hiding some sort of fiery secret pain by denying themselves exterior displays of emotion or excitement. In certain films, this really works, thus earning Spacey a reputation as on of Hollywood's best working actors. In The Shipping News however, it bombs badly.
It's not really Spacey's fault, it's just the script. Spacey is Quoyle, a newly single father, after his slutty whore of a wife (Cate Blanchett) is killed while selling their daughter on the black market to earn spending cash for her latest biker boyfriend. Quoyle spends his time grieving and in denial and soon decides to follow a long lost aunt to the homeland of his family in Newfoundland. There, he stumbles into a job as the shipping news reporter for the local newspaper.
The Shipping News could have been the gut-wrenching story of a single father coping with the loss of his wife, coming to grips with her true nature, and trying to reconstruct a new life for his little family amidst a strange and unfamiliar homeland. Instead, that is totally lost amidst a jumble of themes and fractured half-stories, none of which are never truly dealt with or fully developd.
Shipping News just can't decide where it should go. Is this a tale of the supernatural? Are we exploring local superstitions? How about Man vs. the Sea? Cheating spouses? Resurrections? Journalistic integrity? Missing emotionalism? Old woman lesbianism? It's just too much.
At least the film isn't boring. That mishmash of neglect at least keeps you guessing about where the movie will go. And despite its fractured nature, the film isn't awkward, just unresolved. With such a fine cast of high-energy actors, even Spacey's somewhat spaced out delivery doesn't get annoying.
And deep in that Newfoundland train wreck of conflicting explorations are moments of genuine profoundness and love. Because of those, The Shipping News isn't a total loss. It stands instead as a mere footnote, another example of filmmaking -- what might have been.
Suffer through the DVD and you'll find a commentary track (with writer, director, and two producers, joy!) as well as one of those lame canned making-of documentary shorts. Alas, none of it helps the movie at all.
The news is: she's stealing your car.